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Zoning and Platting remains unhappy with PUD ordinance

Friday, June 22, 2018 by Sommer Brugal

With Draft 3 of CodeNEXT currently under review, the Zoning and Platting Commission voted to send a letter to the mayor and City Council concerning the code’s failure to address problems with the city’s current system of planned unit developments.

Commissioner Jim Duncan was the most outspoken about his frustrations regarding the revisions.

“I was really disappointed,” said Duncan at Tuesday’s meeting. “In (Draft 1) there was no change, and in (Draft 2) there was no change. I brought it up to staff that Draft 3 was even worse; (the PUDS were) obviously an afterthought.” He continued to say that many provisions in the PUD ordinance, like baseline entitlements, had been removed in Draft 3.

According to Duncan, the current code has not been administered in the best way, and PUDs are a good example of that in Austin. He said that while the nature of a PUD is to create a balance of benefits to public and private interests in trade for development allowances, that balance “has been so heavily weighted to the private sector in the past that the public has not benefited.” Duncan said PUDs haven’t been used in a positive way, and he cited the city’s affordability crisis and lack of parkland, among other issues, to support his claim.

“(PUDs are) being used as an escape clause to enhance entitlements,” said Duncan. “I personally love a PUD. If they’re done right, everyone can benefit, but we haven’t been doing it right in Austin, and I don’t see it happening in the code we’ve offered in CodeNEXT.”

The commission’s frustration regarding PUDs in both the current code and CodeNEXT is nothing new. A January Austin Monitor story mentions that the commission’s formal Draft 2 recommendations included a suggestion to re-configure the affordability requirements. That same story references a presentation Duncan made to the commission that highlighted other problems within the ordinance.

The initial letter included 20 recommendations from the commission, but one recommendation proved more constructive compared to the others, from Commissioner Dustin Breithaupt’s perspective. It states that “criteria for superiority should be based on measurable, objective criteria instead of subjective opinions so that everyone can understand what can be approved.” The other recommendations, Breithaupt said, weren’t measurable in the city’s ability to enforce them.

Chair Jolene Kiolbassa agreed with Breithaupt. She said measurable, objective criteria, instead of subjective opinions are “exactly what I feel is needed in the PUD ordinance, and what we’ve been grappling with.” She said the emphasis on such criteria would enable both the developers and neighborhood residents to know what’s expected.

Though the majority of the discussion focused on amendments to the PUD, or expressing frustration with it, Commissioner Sunil Lavani questioned the letter’s intent. He asked if the letter was related to the current code or if it was being given to Council to consider during its CodeNEXT discussions. Duncan responded that while he didn’t know where CodeNEXT was going, the purpose of the letter was simply to say that the PUD needed to be repaired, a comment to which Lavani did not object.

“I agree that the PUD needs to be recalibrated. It needs to be measurable, so that expectations are in line for everybody, from the developers’ side to the community,” said Lavani. “PUDs aren’t bad, and I think that lens needs to be understood.” He went on to say that larger projects need the flexibility PUDs offer.

The final version of the letter follows a less-is-more approach, eliminating the list of recommendations and instead consolidating them to state that the means of superiority should be based on measurable, objective criteria. However, this generated concern from Commissioner Ann Denkler.

“I’m afraid this letter is so simple it won’t have any meaning for Council,” said Denkler. “PUDs have been a real problem, and it hasn’t just been on the last two that we’ve considered.”

Despite her concerns, the motion to send the letter passed 8-1, with Denkler opposed and commissioners Abigail Tatkow and Yvette Flores absent.

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